Review: Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone

Directed by: Lamont Johnson
Category: Sci-fi/Cult Classic

Now this was an interesting film. It reminded me of a cross between The Road Warrior and Star Wars stylistically. I think the best word to describe this one would be "pulp", because it's not really funny or lighthearted, and it's not really hard-edged, action packed or an edge of your seat sci-fi thriller. It's got more of a light air to it that mostly resembles a Saturday Matinee science fiction B-Movie film or a Pulp Science Fiction Serial film like the Flash Gordon's, Buck Roger's and even Star Wars: A New Hope. Complete with over the top matinee theme music by Elmer Bernstein Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone is a pretty fun and entertaining science fiction escape if that's what you're in the mood for. I will say, I was a bit surprised at how good and how well it holds up being as it came out in 1983 and seemed to be a sort of mesh of Star Wars but in a Road Warrior type setting. I had actually forgotten about this one. I'd seen it plenty of times back when it first came out and always seemed to catch it when it was on HBO, which was frequently.
When originally released, it was shown in 3D as in 1983 3D had a big resurgence with films like Friday the 13th 3D, Amityville 3D, Jaws 3D and so on. But as we all know 3D didn't last too long then. I think it was hot for like maybe a year or two. But I don't think I ever saw this in 3D and i'm not sure if it was even ever filmed with 3D in mind as there are no 3D gimmicks like shit flying at the camera and stuff. Did they do conversions just because it was the "thing" back then? I don't remember. But in any case, it's a pretty fun flick.

The story opens when a space cruiser hitting a meteor and exploding, but not before one of the escape pods with three beautiful women or "earthies" as we are called manages to escape before it explodes and is automatically sent to the nearest inhabitable planet. Once it arrives they are quickly taken prisoner by it's hostile natives. When the escape pod was ejected it automatically sent out a distress signal to any person willing to take the rescue mission. Enter Wolff (Peter Strauss), kind of a Han Solo kinda character is the best way to describe him. He's really only in it for the payday and doesn't care about any cause or whatever. Once he hits the planet for the rescue mission he hooks up with a teenage "earthie" named Niki (Molly Ringwald) pre-Sixteen Candles fame. She apparently is the last earthie left on the planet from a medical expedition. She acts as a guide to The Forbidden Zone where the girls are being held prisoner by the warlord Overdog (Michael Ironside). Together they eventually hook up with Wolff's old friend Washington (Ernie Hudson). He's also on his own rescue mission for the girls as it's also a huge payday for him too if he can do it. They ultimately decide to band together for the rescue as it would be much easier to accomplish if they worked together.

I do have some complaints. For the kind of film it's trying to be, there's not really a lot (or enough) action. There's a few scenes for sure here and there, but they're always so brief and never nearly as violent or long enough. And did I mention there's no blood? Yea, there's no blood. Which is fine I guess as it's probably mainly geared towards kids, but if you're going to not show blood altogether, then at least supplement it with a healthy dose of action and excitement. It's not really until the end where Overdog has kind of a Thunderdome style maze that he makes his prisoners go through for entertainment that the film really picks up. The maze itself was pretty awesomely designed and it's this sequence that ultimately saves the film in terms of entertainment value. Unfortunately it's the climax of the film where it should have been somewhere in the middle. And that's the biggest problem, the lack of excitement. No matter how fun and exciting you make the music, if nothing's going on then it's not gonna do shit for the story. There's so much walking and pursuing and chasing and escaping and roaming through the desert landscape and not enough of anything actually happening. What a shame too because in terms of production value, this film looks great. It doesn't matter that it came out in '83, because the effects, production design, costumes and mainly the model work all look fantastic, even better than some of the crap that comes out today. So it has that going for it. I loved the design of this thing, especially the vehicles like The Scrambler and those badass motorcycles enclosed in there own cages. Sweet!
Another complaint would be the villain Overdog. He doesn't show up until half way through, and even then his scenes are brief until the very end. Michael Ironside does a fine job playing Overdog, only you can't tell it's even him as he's completely unrecognizable. Overdog is a cool looking villain but they really could have just gotten anybody to play him. I mean, they even changed his voice by either completely dubbing it or doing some fancy work to it because it's not Ironside's voice. What a waste of a good cult actor.
Molly Ringwald does what she can with her part, if only she wasn't so whiny throughout the entire film. And if you don't watch this with the subtitles on then you won't understand 90% of the shit that comes out of her mouth as on that planet she's sort of developed her own version of the English language. Watching it in subtitles makes it a little easier to understand what she's trying to say.

I can't stress enough how badass the model and effects work is here. Even today when model work is used sparingly like in Batman (Tim Burton version), Total Recall or even Broken Arrow (I only mention this one because I just saw it and was amazed at how horrible the aircraft crash and explosion was) for an explosion of some aircraft or building, it just looks like a model and it looks cheap. But here the model work is amazing and I got to give props to the effects team for making spaceship landings and takeoffs and building explosions look so good. Even the matte work was impressive.

Peter Strauss pulls off the easygoing bounty hunter character really well. And to be honest, if the film had some unknown playing this part it probably would've failed because he pulls if off with such ease. The rest of the cast also gives the film an edge that would sorely be missing without there caliber and would've ultimately landed this thing in the direct-to-video market. But because we've got some character actors of good status in here it makes the film fun to watch. The director, Lamont Johnson, was an interesting choice. I'd never heard of him before, surprising considering what an awesome job he did here, and was shocked to learn that he's only ever done television work, mostly drama. I don't know how they decided to pick this guy to helm a Star Wars/Road Warrior hybrid but the guy did good.

Spacehunder: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone is a prime example of how a music score can basically make the genre of the film. Here, they clearly were going for an Indiana Jones type of theme and it's played as such through the entire film. Even when completely unnecessary, it's blaring this high note serial motif that makes the film feel fun. With just the visuals alone it easily coulda been a much darker picture had they gone the complete opposite direction with the score and made it much more ominous and brooding. Throw in a little more action and some actual blood and it easily would have been categorized under the dark and violent world of the futuristic post apocalyptic world of Mad Max. It just goes to show you the power of a score.

It's a very well put together film with top-notch production value, design and direction. The cast adds that extra ingredient that raises this well above average B-Movie quality stuff. It just needed a lot more action to satisfy a true sci-fi filmgeek.


  1. With regard to the 3D - One of the reasons the film flopped was that there was precious little in the way of pop-out effects used. Even today, audiences still expect things to pop from a 3D film, when it's supposed to be used as a background effect rather than a gimmick.

    Lamont Johnson was not a fan of 3D, given that he couldn't see properly out of one eye. However, he did make proper use of 3D, in that the film has perceived depth. Of particular 3D note are the panning scenic views and the 3D space shots from Fantasy II Effects.

    With regard to the action and the kind of film it's trying to be - It was actually filmed as a character development story between Wolff and Niki. Small snippets of this story remain, but most of the decent scenes were cut by the studio to make way for the random action moments. Strauss and Ringwald especially were very upset when they saw the final cut.

    In fact, most of the film's flaws are down to poor decisions made by the studio and forced onto the film-makers, including the awful choice of set-in-stone release date!

    The history of the screenplay is also peppered with tragedy. In the late 1970s, the first draft was called Road Gangs. It was shown around at Cannes while seeking sign-up from various production companies. One from Australia saw it and expressed interest. Next thing, that same company had suddenly done and released a film called Mad Max. Coincidence?
    Either way, it required the complete and hurried re-write that became Spacehunter.

    So, in spite of these and many other problems, the fact that Spacehunter not only made it to release, but is STILL on people's radar today certainly speaks volumes about it!

  2. Hey man, that's some very interesting info. As hard as I tried, I couldn't find much regarding the production of Spacehunter.

    So what you're saying is that it was never really intended to be an action science fiction film? The score alone screams the exact opposite, but maybe that was one of the decisions imposed by the studio?

    In any case, I thought it was great in terms of design, casting and effects. Hey, maybe we'll get an "uncut" version some day!? We can only hope right?

    Again, thanks for the great info. :)

  3. It was originally intended to be the same story that Mad Max became, an Earth-bound tale of revenge. remember just after the train battle, we met the two brothers who rode the bikes, Jarrett and Duster Patterson?
    Jarrett was supposed to go and get revenge on the Overdog for killing Grandman Patterson.

    But, as the original script got ripped off pre-production and Mad Max got there first, it was re-written to be set somewhere either in outerspace, or another planet.

    New characters were created and the focus was on Wolff and the rescue.

    As the Elmer Bernstein score suggests, the action/adventure side was fully intended, but it was also supposed to have far more meaningful character development. These scenes were shot, but cut out.
    When Wolff and Niki take shelter in the silo and get attacked by the big white blobby (or Bat People, as they were known) creatures - Notice how the scene opens with him having his arm around her. Looks kinds creepy, given that she's only 14, right?
    This scene picks up right after a bonding moment, where Niki reveals how her family were killed off by Overdog and she had to grow up alone, while Wolff relents and tells how his own family were killed while he was fighting in the war.

    Effects were pretty darn hot, for the time, courtesy of Fantasty II Film effects (Terminator 2, Aliens, etc).
    In fact, many of the cast and crew from Spacehunter are now award-winning, top industry professionals!!

    As for more info - Shameless plug, but check out the Spacehunter forum:

  4. Wow, a plethora of information! I love that! As I said, the movie looks great and though it didn't turn out the way they had hoped, it at least has that going for it. I still enjoy it quite a bit. :) I checked out that link, but there doesn't seem to be any info? Or am I just not looking in the right place?

  5. I saw this in the theater as a young lad and the 3-D was kinda disappointing (just a couple of gun barrels popping out) but it was still a ton of fun.

  6. You're right. It didn't seem like they were trying to throw it in your face like say Friday the 13th 3D, so I can't imagine what it would have been like in the theater trying to watch this in 3D with all the colors being off and whatnot. But a pretty solid movie, especially on a technical level.